La Fiesta Pequeña was anything but little this year as the lawns in front of the Santa Barbara Mission on Wednesday evening were packed with spectators sprawled out on picnic blankets and plastic chairs eager to witness the first “Little Fiesta” since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel we’ve never had as many people as we have now,” Old Spanish Days La Presidente Maria Cabrera said in welcoming the crowd to the show.
View a photo gallery from La Fiesta Pequeña by clicking on the arrow on the right side of the photo above.
The event started with performances by the Spirit and Junior Spirit of Fiesta, who each performed a solo in a floor-length white dress.
This year’s Spirit of Fiesta is 19-year-old Tara Mata, a recent Santa Barbara City College graduate who plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology at San Francisco State University. Mata has been training with Daniela Zermeño-Sanchez since age 5 and has been an instructor and mentor at Zermeño Dance Academy since 2015.
Layla Gocong, 9, is this year’s Junior Spirit of Fiesta. Gocong is a third-grade student at Crane Country Day School and plans to become a veterinarian. She has been training in flamenco at the Zermeño Dance Academy for four years.
Frank Lara and his family were among Wednesday night’s spectators. A Santa Barbara native, Lara said he has been attending Old Spanish Days Fiesta since he was a year old and that La Fiesta Pequeña is his favorite event of the celebration.
“It wasn’t until later in life that I started to appreciate the opening ceremony more,” Lara said. “This is like the whole start of it all and the kickoff of it all, and it’s just so special for sure.”
Lara reserved a picnic spot for his family and friends at 9 a.m. Tuesday for Wednesday night’s showcase. His family set up a table with pots of beans, rice and meat, and his relative Alicia Lara Parker offered plates of food to her friends and hungry-looking passersby.
“We are a Fiesta family,” Parker said.
The event featured traditional performances by members from more than a dozen dance academies who came from around Santa Barbara County and as far south as Los Angeles to perform this week, according to event organizers.
Kaiya Brown, 14, was among the many dancers performing. She said it was her first time in Fiesta. Brown’s studio, Garcia Dance Studio, came from Lompoc to participate. According to Brown, she and her studio have been training for about a year for this week. Wednesday evening marked her fifth performance of the day, and she said she will be do about five performances a day this week with her studio.
“I’ve only watched [La Fiesta Pequeña] on TV, which is really cool, but it’s even cooler in person,” Brown said. “I’m definitely excited to see what my friends and my family think about this because they haven’t seen me on TV beforee, so it’s gonna be really fun for them.”
Fabiola Hernandez, director of Xochipilli de Santa Barbara, said her studio has been performing with Fiesta since 2008, when the studio opened. According to Hernandez, dance studios must be invited to audition in order to perform in Fiesta.
“Being able to have the Mission as the backdrop to our dance is just amazing,” Hernandez said. “You know, it’s a privilege because they’re allowing us to use this special place. It’s awesome to be here with our community.”
Hernandez said her dancers practice twice a week every week all year, except for two weeks in December. Since COVID-19, the studio has been shut down and the dancers have been practicing in a parking lot.
“I have students in junior high. I have college students. I have people who’ve already graduated. I have grandmas, I have moms — it’s really a community group,” she said. “So, I think that’s something very special about our group.”
The festivities are scheduled to continue Thursday with La Misa del Presidente, High Mass hosted by the Santa Barbara Parish at 10 a.m. at the Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St.
Also Thursday will be the start of the Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo from 9 a.m. in the Earl Warren Showgrounds’ Dome Arena. Competition for children ages 7 to 17 begins at 11 a.m. in the Mountain View Arena.